A legal career’s comic turn

  • August 23, 2018
  • Marcel Strigberger

Are you retired yet? That was about the most common question people would ask me before I closed my practice. The second most common question was, “When are you retiring?” 

I actually stopped practising law in early 2017, after a brief stint of 43 years. I have since been focusing on my ongoing humour writing and speaking career.

This leads me to the third most common comment, “Lawyer and humour? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” That gives you an idea what the public thinks about lawyers. 

How and why did I transition? Ah huh!

The Big Bang of both careers started that afternoon in Grade 2 when my mother took me to my physician. Upon arrival, his receptionist advised that he was ill. When I returned to my class, the teacher asked where I had been. Innocently, I replied, “I went to the doctor but the doctor was sick.”

The kids broke out in uncontrollable laughter. Doctors do not get sick. They’re superhuman. 

But, the teacher was not amused. She said, “Trying to be funny?” She punished me. I had to write out 20 times, “I will not joke around.”

I thought that was unfair. There and then my law career started. Sort of. I wanted to pursue fairness passionately. But, what profession deals with justice? At age seven, I had never heard of lawyers.

Not long after, Perry Mason came along on television. I was enthralled by his character. People are accused of a crime they did not commit, they hire a lawyer, and he proves they’re innocent. I’ll show that teacher. I’m in.

But, that magic moment in Grade 2 changed me. The classmates’ laughter was a lotus-like elixir. I became the class clown, and I was punished for it, but it was worth the price.

Near the end of my undergrad years at McGill, I realized my career path was a toss-up between law school and comedy. I loved both options. I chose comedy.

I took a year off after my B.A. and freelanced for the CBC. I also applied to law school in the unlikely event that I could not make a living freelance writing. That unlikely event became likely.

I got called to the Bar of Ontario in March 1974 BC (before computers).

My passion for comedy and humour, however, was unabated. I contributed stuff for publications legal and non, including the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, The Lawyers Weekly, LSUC (as it then was), Gazette, etc.  As well, I published my first book, Birth, Death and Other Trivialities: A Humorous Philosophical Look at the Human Condition.

In the late 1970s, Yuk Yuks came along and I spent about six years having the time of my life doing standup, sharing the stage with the likes of then unknown comics such as Howie Mandel, Bob Saget and Jim Carrey.

I was tempted to move down to L.A., as they did and take my chances, but I did not think my good wife and three small kids would appreciate me closing my practice and risking financial ruin. 

I did various gigs, including a most memorable appearance at a conference of the Ontario Superior Court Judges’ Association. This was actually the first time judges reacted to my presentation with applause. (It was also the last time.) I experienced that Grade 2 moment feeling big time. And, I even got paid for it (as opposed to being made to write out some nasty sentence 20 times). 

Humour is priceless in a law practice. Its use promotes civility. Often when opposing counsel would not respond to a communication, I would fax a letter reading:

There can only be three reasons why you haven’t responded:

1)      You’re extremely busy;

2)      I have not responded to you previously; or

3)      You found out I was the guy who punched the air out of the tires of your new Lexus.

I always received a quick response from the lawyer apologizing, thanking me for making him or her giggle and, in one case, saying the reason for not responding was #3.

Much can be said about the use of humour including that it creates rapport, promotes wellness and enhances creativity. Most important, everyone can use it safely, in business or otherwise.

As I was nearing age 70, I thought about that adage, “The best time to plant an oak tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.”

My number one son, Daniel, actually an insurance defence lawyer, dropped subtle hints, such as, “Stop practising. You’re old.” (I have revised my will.)

The emotional problem was making my announcement to my friends and colleagues and my most able and loyal assistant Angela. (I can freely say that now; she can’t hit me for a raise.)

As for the logistics, fortunately, I was able to resolve many of my files and my remaining clients agreed to have their matters forwarded to Daniel. (He’s back in my will.)

The law has been a super opportunity for me to aim to do right. As Mark Twain said, “Always do right. It will gratify some people and amaze the rest.”

Since my practice termination, I have had the pleasure of launching my new book, Poutine on the Orient Express: An Irreverent Look at Travel. I am riding along on that star that came along that afternoon in Grade 2, enjoying the ride and ready to go where it takes me for as long as my higher authority wants it to fly. I am not retired. I have planted that oak tree and I am busy nurturing it.

Read more from Marcel Strigberger at www.marcelshumour.com.

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